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Immigration in Canada: Some refugees’ housing situation dire

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TORONTO –

For thousands of refugees, the chance to come to Canada is a dream, but for far too many who are already here, their situation has grown dangerously desperate.

A Palestinian refugee stabbed herself in the stomach, just below the ribcage, last week while in a meeting with a federal government official with Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC).

Sitting on a park bench, a day after being released from hospital, Aziza Abusirdana tells CTV News, “I put a knife in my body because no one cares. Seriously no one cares.”

For seven months she’s been stuck, living in a refugee hotel west of Toronto. She says she never intended to kill herself, but decided to stab herself in the stomach to try and get the attention of the federal government and the settlement agency which, for more than half a year, hasn’t been able to assist her in finding what she believes would be a safe place to live.

Abusirdana believes the government has failed her. Exasperated, she says, “If you [the government] know that there’s no suitable place for me to stay why did you accept me to come [to Canada]?”

Raised in Gaza, Abusirdana’s young life has been filled with trauma. She claims her own father and grandfather back home have threatened to find her and kill her. The 22-year-old left home and was on a scholarship from an Algerian university, but says she had to drop out and flee to Canada amid fears that her own family was tracking her down with plans to murder her.

Publicly, she doesn’t share what led to her situation with her father and grandfather, but the incident has left her traumatized, alone and isolated in a new country, and unable to trust anyone. Her request for housing is straight forward: her own bedroom and bathroom with a lock on each door. And she can’t live in a shared space with men.

She says she’s been shown nothing but inadequate apartments. Sometimes she’s been shown the same place twice. The $1,100 a month she receives from the government will run out in five months, and having enough money to feed herself and put a roof over her head in Toronto’s red hot rental market, has limited her options.

Abusirdana says she even travelled to Ottawa to try and speak to Immigration Canada, but the trip resolved nothing.

“I was suffering in Palestine, I was suffering in Algeria, I didn’t think I’d suffer here in Canada,” admits the distraught woman.

CTV News asked Abusirdana if she was offered a therapist or psychologist to sit down with after arriving in Canada. She says no, the only option presented was to pay $150 per session out of pocket, which she couldn’t afford.

Abusirdana is the second refugee in a month to harm themselves at the same refugee hotel. In mid-October, a father from Afghanistan decided to sew his lips together in protest.

He and his family of eight had been living in the hotel waiting for the government to deliver their paperwork for more than 12 months. A couple of weeks after he took the drastic step the federal government signed, sealed and sent his family their papers.

One advocate is concerned that more and more refugees are going to harm themselves in a desperate cry for help.

“This is what I’m worried about,” says refugee advocate Mona Elshayal. “It’s taking too long for people to find housing, and they really don’t have any hope. After months in a hotel with nowhere to go their mental health is rapidly deteriorating.”

These disturbing developments come as Canada’s Minister of Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada Sean Fraser announced his government’s plan to plow forward with its “ambitious” target to bring 40,000 refugees to Canada from Afghanistan. So far they’ve brought over more than half of their targeted goal.

At a press conference this week in Toronto Fraser proclaimed, “We’re going to continue to lead the world when it comes to refugee resettlement. In each of the past three years Canada has resettled more refugees than anywhere else in the world. In fact, Canada was responsible for more than one-third of the total number of refugees that were resettled in each of the last two years.”

But many newcomers who’ve spoken with CTV News over the last several months say that you can’t call it resettlement when you’ve left a large number of refugees stranded at a hotel on Canadian soil for six to 12 months, with no home and no papers, unable to work, go to school, or pay taxes.

As an advocate, Elshayal says she supports Canada’s efforts to bring refugees here, but not if they’re being “re-traumatized” by a “broken system.”

Elshayal believes “the program needs to be re-evaluated, they should consider taking the families to smaller communities where they would have the support and ability to live on the financial assistance that’s given to them. We need to provide mental health support because every single one of them needs its.”

The long-time advocate also points the blame at the agencies hired by the federal government to resettle newcomers.

An organization called Polycultural has been put in charge at Abusirdana’s hotel west of Toronto. Multiple CTV News investigations have uncovered several reported issues with how Polycultural has been handling the refugees in its care at this location.

The resettlement agency’s executive director, Marwan Ismail, was also at the meeting with a manager from the IRCC when Abusirdana stabbed herself in the abdomen last week.

In an email, Ismail told CTV News, “We were shocked and saddened at what happened during our meeting with Aziza last week. Since then, we have scheduled a follow-up meeting with her to offer mental health support while we continue working to find her a suitable home.”

Advocate Elshayal was also at the meeting, after Abusirdana requested she attend.

“She (Aziza Abusirdana) stood up during the meeting, she got very frustrated. I tried to talk to her, but she looked away and said something under her breath, then she took the knife out of her pocket and plunged it into her stomach.”

Continuing her recollection, Elshayal said, “She fell to the ground; I immediately went down and looked for something to put pressure on the wound and I asked the person from Polycultural to call 911.

“I could sense that every time we met that she was getting more and more frustrated. I’ve spoken with Polycultural and the IRCC about the mental health situation in the hotel.”

Doctors have told Abusirdana she’s fortunate that the knife didn’t go deeper into her stomach. The 22-year-old says she has the same hopes and dreams of anyone her age.

“I’d like to complete my education. I want to work and have a nice job, and have the chance to live a life. I deserve a chance to life but right now there’s nothing.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis, here are some resources that are available.

Canada Suicide Prevention Helpline (1-833-456-4566)

Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (1 800 463-2338)

Crisis Services Canada (1-833-456-4566 or text 45645)

Kids Help Phone (1-800-668-6868)

If you need immediate assistance call 911 or go to the nearest hospital.

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Pope Francis calls for Olympic truce for countries at war, prays for peace

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VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis on Sunday voiced his hope that the Paris Olympic and Paralympic Games will provide an opportunity for countries at war to respect an ancient Greek tradition and establish a truce for the duration of the Games.

“According to ancient tradition, may the Olympics be an opportunity to establish a truce in wars, demonstrating a sincere will for peace,” Francis said during his Angelus prayer in St. Peter’s Square.

The Pope stressed that sport also has “a great social power, capable of peacefully uniting people from different cultures.”

The opening ceremony of the 33rd Olympic Games will be held in Paris on July 26 with the participation of 205 delegations of athletes, who will parade on more than 80 boats on the Seine.

“I hope that this event can be a sign of the inclusive world we want to build and that the athletes, with their sporting testimony, may be messengers of peace and valuable models for the young,” Francis added.

The pope, as always, asked the faithful to pray for peace, recalling the ongoing conflicts around the world.

“Let us not forget the martyred Ukraine, Palestine, Israel, Myanmar, and many other countries at war. Let us not forget, war is a defeat,” he concluded.

The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.



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Canadian basketball star Natalie Achonwa preps for her fourth — and final — Olympics

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VICTORIA – Natalie Achonwa had plans for motherhood.

As a professional basketball player and competitive person, she believed she’d quickly figure out feeding and sleep schedules after her son, Maverick, arrived in April 2023.

Babies, Achonwa learned, have little respect for plans.

Balancing parenting with returning to elite sport has been full of challenges, especially as Achonwa prepares for the Paris Olympics with the Canadian women’s basketball team.

“I wouldn’t trade being Maverick’s mom for the world. But I don’t want to glamorize the life of being a professional athlete and being a mom at the same time,” she said.

“I’m not saying you can’t do it. And I’m not saying women aren’t superheroes. I want to be real in the sense that there are plenty of perks, plenty of fun things that I get to experience with him. But it’s hard as hell.”

Achonwa, a 31-year-old forward from Guelph, Ont., joined Team Canada as a teen.

Her first Olympics were the 2012 London Games and she’ll play the tournament for a fourth — and final — time at the Paris 2024 this month.

Selected ninth overall by Indiana Fever in the 2014 draft, Achonwa spent eight seasons playing in the WNBA for Indiana and the Minnesota Lynx, with overseas stints in Italy, France, South Korea and China.

Being a professional athlete made becoming a mom harder in some senses, she said.

“I was so hyper aware of how I should be feeling mentally and physically that when I was going through some postpartum depression, I could see myself but I couldn’t feel it,” she explained at Team Canada’s training camp in Victoria, B.C., last month.

“I’m like ‘This is wrong, but I don’t know what to do about it.’ And thankfully, I’ve created such an amazing group of family and friends that really pulled me through that.”

Achonwa teared up as she described how refreshing it felt to return to the women’s national team.

“Coming back to this group makes me feel whole,” she said. “Canada Basketball has been a part of who I am since I was 14, 16 years old. And now, adding my son, coming back from maternity leave and being a mother has changed my mindset and pushed me deeper into this Canada Basketball family and life.”

Paris will mark the fourth consecutive time Canada’s women’s national team has made it to the Olympics. Achonwa has been on all four squads. This time around, the Canadians head into the tournament ranked fifth in the world.

The team has a different feel, Achonwa said.

“This group is different because I don’t feel like I’m pushing them to be somewhere. I feel like I’m opening the door for them to be there,” she said.

Canada finished ninth in women’s basketball at the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Games in 2021. Expectations were high for the team heading in, with thoughts they would bring home a medal.

“I think it was almost a hyper-focus of suffocating your dream,” Achonwa said. “And throw in COVID, throw in all the things that kind of derailed our peak, not to make excuses, but it just didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to.”

The result was tough, said forward Kayla Alexander.

“We didn’t get the results we wanted in Tokyo. That was the worst,” she said. “Firstly, we didn’t get the results we wanted and then second, we were stuck there. You couldn’t leave straight away and we had to sit in it. It wasn’t exactly a fun feeling.”

Changes were made. Canada Basketball hired Victor Lapena to coach the team in January 2022. Some players moved on, others moved up from the development program.

Canada finished fourth at the 2022 World Cup, then took bronze at the FIBA Women’s AmeriCup in 2023.

In February, though, Canada nearly missed clinching an Olympic berth after going 1-2 in qualifying. The team secured its spot when Spain beat Hungary with a dramatic comeback.

“Between (Tokyo) and how our Olympic qualifiers went? That is all the motivation I need,” Alexander said. “That’s what’s been fuelling me to keep going, just having those memories of how it felt and not wanting to repeat that experience again.”

Competition at the Paris Games will be fierce.

Canada opens the tournament on July 29 against host France, who are ranked seventh in the world. Group play will also pit the Canadians against No. 3 Australia and the 12th-ranked Nigerians.

The composition of Canada’s team is unique, Lapena said.

“Thinking about basketball, we have great athletes. We can do pretty dynamic basketball,” the coach said. “And we have different tools in different positions that make this team very, very difficult to defend. Because we are a little bit unpredictable. And I like that.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 21, 2024.



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‘Not OK’: Closing only pool in Ontario town points to growing climate challenge

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CLINTON, Ont. _ Randy Marriage was a regular at his hometown’s only pool when he was growing up, cooling off with friends on summer days. His grandchildren won’t have the same chance.

Despite hotter summers and more intense heat waves, partly induced by man-made climate change, local authorities have decided to close the only pool in the small southern Ontario community of Clinton, citing its high refurbishing and maintenance costs.

“It is a terrible decision to close this pool,” said Marriage, 58, a lifelong Clinton resident, standing by a splash pad next to a now waterless pool.

“Our council is trying to tell us, you know, it is OK,” he added. “It is not OK.”

Clinton is facing the same climate challenges as larger communities, but is suffering more because it isn’t “deep-pocketed,” Marriage said.

Experts broadly agree that smaller communities, which often have few options to raise money, will struggle to adapt to a warmer world.

“Certainly it makes sense that smaller and rural communities with fewer resources, fewer sort of services overall will have a tougher time supporting their most vulnerable residents in the event of extreme heat,” said Ryan Ness, director of adaptation at the Canadian Climate Institute.

Property tax is often the only avenue for small communities to raise new funds. Getting money for new projects, like a major pool renovation or building cooling centres, typically requires a grant from the provincial or federal government.

Rural communities often lack the capacity to navigate the bureaucratic hurdles involved with getting grant money, Ness said.

Salomé Sané, a climate campaigner at Greenpeace Canada, said the federal government should create a climate adaptation fund specifically for small communities to help them upgrade buildings to make them cooler, improve transportation and improve access to real-time information about incoming heat waves.

“What we actually need is a strong investment … into preparation and adaptation to extreme heat that is very much tailored to the needs of rural communities,” she said.

Clinton, a community of roughly 3,000 people located about 200 kilometres west of Toronto, is part of the municipality of Central Huron.

Jim Ginn, the mayor of Central Huron, said the community does not have enough resources to meet the coming climate challenge.

So far, the splash pad and the community’s cooling centre have proven enough to cope with bouts of extreme heat, Ginn said, but he conceded the municipality isn’t prepared for a future with hotter, more intense summers.

“Until it becomes a higher priority for the senior levels of government that they fund us more, there is not much more we can do,” he said.

Clinton’s only pool was initially closed in 2020 as a temporary measure during the COVID-19 pandemic. It reopened in 2021 but closed again 2022 because it needed repairs. Ginn said the decision to close it permanently was made last month by the local council, which determined it could not afford the more than $5 million needed to renovate and re-open the pool.

The mayor said council asked residents to weigh in before making the decision but didn’t get feedback.

“Everything blew up” after the decision was made, he added.

The council vote is reversible if the community secures funding either through public fundraising or government grants to cover part of the expenses, the mayor said.

Stacey Petteplace, who moved to Clinton nearly a decade ago, said the pool’s permanent closure means residents need to drive to neighbouring towns to swim, which is a problem for those who don’t have a vehicle.

“Our kids needed us to give them this safe place, so they have a place to cool down in the summer,” she said. “We failed to do that.”

Angelee Bird, another Clinton resident, said losing the pool means losing one way community residents might have found some relief during hot summers.

When her apartment building lost power during a heat wave in June, Bird said she was lucky to have family members nearby who she could stay with overnight. Others might not have many options, she said.

“Our entire building was outside, sitting on grass because it was the only way to cool down,” the 28-year-old mother of two said.

In Seaforth, Ont., a little north of Clinton, spirits are higher after the town’s first and only splash pad was opened last month.

Dean Wood, who spearheaded the project, said local businesses and residents raised $330,000 to build it.

Wood said he used to drive his children to splash pads in neighbouring towns when they were growing up, trips his relatives and others in Seaforth now don’t have to make.

“It is a wonderful sight to see because every time you pull into the park on a hot summer day, the splash pad is being used,” he said.

Nicole Ward, who visited the splash pad recently with her child and friends, said Seaforth’s residents feel lucky to have a place where they can stop by to cool off.

“We love it, it is very family oriented,” she said.

“We have a nice big pool, a splash pad and our town is more fortunate than other places that don’t have as much funds coming in for them to build facilities to keep cool.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 21, 2024.



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